Sarah and I arrived tired and exhausted from our 20 hours of travel from Chicago to Amsterdam then from Amsterdam to Cape Town. Passing over the Alps we were treated to clear skies and great views of the French Alps. We continued into clouds over the Mediterranean Sea, the Sahara, the Sahel, and the tropical jungles of the Congo before descending into darkness for the rest of the flight to Cape Town. After getting off the plane we parted ways, each of us off to our respective destinations. Sarah went off to her geology field camp, and I was taken swiftly to a mental hospital, to be clear, an abandoned mental hospital on the outskirts of Cape Town, which had been repurposed as an eco village. Oude Molen Eco Village contains living quarters, a farm stall, restaurant, guesthouse, and a working farm. I awoke the first morning to the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster in a new and different world and was presented quite the welcome as I stepped out the door. The clouds had just broken, the rain stopped and the sun emerged to create a spectacular rainbow stretching from the top of Table Mountain down to the heart of Cape Town. My first morning got off to a slow and gradual start. The night before I had been picked up from the airport by Helen, one of the two owners of Oude Molen, and discussing my previous farming work back in the states at Growing Power in Milwaukee. She told me about her partner, John, and his ambitious plans to add a large aquaponics system to his permaculture garden. Helen had told John about my arrival, and he was eagerly awaiting me with tea in the morning and a number of questions about installing and running aquaponics systems. A good deal of my first morning was spent with John, which was nice as I could help him with what I knew and pick his brain a bit about Cape Town and South Africa before I set out on my own. In the afternoon I made my first foray into the city of Cape Town, catching the train for 6 rand (about 75 cents) into the city. It was a bit of an information overload, like the first time in any unfamiliar city, and I spent the afternoon running errands, and finding a cheap cellphone to keep in touch with Sarah so we could meet up easily in 4 weeks time. Not normally being a big city person I am usually keen to get out as soon as I can after flying in, but Cape Town is definitely one exception. It is as if you took the mesas of western Colorado and put them in San Fransisco, and then added it’s own unique landscape. It is a city for everyone, and probably one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to.
The next day in Cape Town I made the most of being a tourist and got an early start to ride the cable car that takes you from the base to the summit of Table Mountain. From the top you get an excellent view of the city and the surrounding bays, and is a good point to start hiking. Table Mountain is over 3500 feet above sea level, which by mountain size seems pretty small, but it shoots straight out of the sea making the sheer rock faces look all that more daunting. The cape peninsula also provides the perfect microclimate for the fynbos, which is the name of the biome found in the area. The fynbos is home to its own unique floral kingdom and has over 9,000 different species of which over 6,000 are endemic, existing only on this little sliver of land in South Africa and nowhere else in the world. Needless to say I spent the whole day exploring the unique landscapes on and around Table Mountain. Scattered around on top of Table Mountain are little dassies, also known as rock hyrax. They are about the size of a guinea pig, and are very interesting creatures with their closest living relative being the elephant. They have very rubbery pads on their feet with sweat glands to help them stick to rocks while climbing almost vertical pitches. They also seem to be one of the lazy animals I have ever seen, and on a nice sunny day you can find tons of them sprawled out on rocks just soaking up the sun.
The next day, May 17th, I awoke early, stopped to say my goodbyes & well wishes to Helen & John, and then took the quick train ride again from Pinelands Station to Cape Town. My original plan, based on the routes shown on the map above the ticket window, was to ride the rails northeast from Cape Town to the city of Bloemfontien, and from there venture into the small mountainous country of Lesotho. To my surprise, although I caught on very quickly afterwards, all the routes on the map had been cut except one, Cape Town to Johannesburg. After some deliberation I decided to purchase a ticket to roughly the halfway point, which would take me to the city of Kimberly. Kimberly is a diamond-mining town and was home to Cecil Rhodes, and the De Beers Company. It is about 80km north of Bloemfontein, and was my best bet for a jumping off point. I bought the ticket and then waited for about 45 minutes as it was “processed” by the lady behind the counter while I waited on the benches. I finally got the ticket and lugged all my gear down to sleeper car 11H and found myself across from a short, stocky Afrikaans man. He repeated the same routine of drinking a beer, snacking, and napping for the first 8-10 hours, which was then followed by a lumbering sleep with a snore that put the train whistle to shame. I on the other hand spent the first 8 hours pretty much glued to the window watching the landscape slowly change from the capes fynbos, to the vineyards of Paarl & Stellenbosch. The train stops as we passed through the wine lands were filled with hawkers selling fresh grapes to the passing train cars. I was easily won over by the one vendor’s shouts of “get the sweetness! 5 rand! Taste the sweetness”. I got 2kg of grapes and was not disappointed as the sales pitch lived up to its name as I mowed down the fresh grapes. The vegetation slowly thinned out into jagged peaks covered in thick shrubs, and eventually into the sparsely covered karoo with its rocks, shrubs, and prehistoric looking succulents. It was a dream come true, at least the daylight hours, as the train acted as a never-ending safari, with the only downside being I couldn’t stop when I wanted to take a picture. Passing through the wine lands I was fortunate enough to spot a caracal not far from the track lurking in the brush. When the land gave way to the karoo it was open season as I spotted a number of springboks, ostriches, and elands. As night fell I began to prepare myself for my arrival in Kimberly. It was a 17 hour train ride with a projected arrival time of 3:30am, a tricky time indeed as nothing is open and I couldn’t very well go meandering around town in the dark alone with all my belongings. I went to sleep around 8pm and was up about a quarter to three. As 3:30 came and went, and the train hadn’t made a stop I began to feel a bit uneasy. I set out to find a train employee to find out where we were. I finally found someone who told me the train was running late, although they had no idea how late. Afraid to go back to sleep and miss my stop I stayed up until we finally arrived in Kimberly 3 hours late at 6:30am. Being late was actually beneficial though, as it now made my 3:30 am arrival dilemma null and void since the sun was now beginning to rise. However, it did cost me a bit of time I could’ve spent sleeping had I known the actual arrival time.
Upon leaving the train station I found no taxis, and no buses. Figuring I was perhaps too early I decided to set out on foot to find a place to stay. I headed about 3km northeast to where a reasonably priced place was supposed to be, only to find out it was another 5-10km outside the city. With only my feet to carry me I found it too impractical to be so far out of town because it would’ve been about a 20km round trip walk if I needed anything while I stayed there. I backtracked the 3km I had already walked and continued south down the main drag another 2km, all this while carrying my 40-50 lbs. of gear on my back. The weight I was carrying and the fact I had only eaten grapes for the last few meals, albeit vast amounts of grapes, on the previous days train ride was taking its toll. I ended up heading into the tourist information center another half kilometer south for a break, and to see if I could get a better map and find some more information. While I was in my last ditch effort to find an affordable place to stay, two backpackers stumbled in looking as worn down as myself. They were Lance & Kristi, a couple from Illinois who were on their last leg of a 4-month trip through southern Africa. They had run into the same problem I had a couple days ago, and had settled on an overpriced under construction guesthouse on the south side of town ironically named “Stay a Day guesthouse”. They only intended to stay a day but had become virtually trapped in Kimberly and were on their third day of attempting to leave. It became increasingly apparent that public transport had suffered some major cuts since 2010 when South Africa hosted the world cup. Guide books, ticket offices, websites, everything lists all these trains, buses, taxi routes, etc. but when you enquire about them, or worse, when you assume they are functioning, when in fact they don’t exist anymore. The only public transport left are mini bus taxis, which are unreliable, inefficient, and can be dangerous. This is why the couple from Illinois was on their third day of attempting to leave Kimberly. They were headed the same route I intended to go on the next day departing from Kimberly to Bloemfontein, and on into Lesotho. The catch with mini bus taxis is that it must be full, completely full, every seat must be filled and are often times beyond the recommended capacity to depart, otherwise you just may not go that day. This is what happened to them the previous two days. Fearing this was a distinct possibility for me since I was planning the same route out I made a executive decision to join Lance & Kristi. Whether I was the weight that tipped the scale in their favor or if it was just their lucky day, the mini bus taxi filled up for the hour and a half jaunt to Bloemfontein. I learned two important things on my first mini bus taxi ride. The first being that there is no place to stow baggage (although some do occasionally have little trailers) so everything you have must fit on your lap. The second is that, seemingly, all the South Africans like to ride in the jam-packed mini bus taxis with the windows up with no airflow. As I soon found out when I was politely asked to “please close the window, the air is getting in my nose”. Confused and now uncertain about where air was supposed to go and the function of the nose on my face I held tight for the short drive to Bloemfontein. After the first success and with no real reason to stick around in Bloemfontein, and luck on our side, we found a mini bus taxi headed to the border of South Africa and Lesotho with 3 seats left. We all squeezed in and headed to the border town and capitol of Lesotho, Maseru. After the border formalities and a taxi ride around Maseru we were finding accommodation to be quite tricky again. The one affordable place we found happened to be booked with all the 40 beds taken up by a church group. The owners were kind enough to recommend us to another place, which ended up being nicer, cheaper, and closer to the city center. It also happened to be an Anglican church with whom the owners were part of. We arrived and told the people at the church who had sent us and they fixed us up with rooms in the priest training center next to the church. Maseru contains about 400,000 people in its massive sprawl, which is almost 50% of Lesotho’s population. Lesotho is one of the poorer countries in Africa, and has an extremely high percentage of its population with HIV/AIDS, somewhere around 25%, and with the life expectancy of around 40-50 years, the majority of the population is quite young. In stark contrast to other poor nations though, it has a literacy rate of about 85% and from my brief walk through the city that afternoon people were extremely friendly and welcoming.